Underwater Photography

Diving with California Sea Lions

Bring up sea lions in a group of California divers and every single person will stop, smile and want to share their best experience diving with these amazing sea dogs.

They are one mammal that most divers want to dive with and the West Coast of North America has several dive sites to guarantee some interaction with these sea puppies. Over 238,000 sea lions make the West Coast their home, stretching all the way from Vancouver to the Southern tip of Baja so finding spots to dive with them is pretty easy.

Sea lions love to tease divers, hanging over the diver and playing in their bubbles, zipping around and trying to get you to try and touch them, barking in your face, chewing on your fins and all around just being the little pranksters that they are.

Adult sea lions love to engage but they tend to be more reserved in their play which then brings you to juveniles which are basically little puppies wanting to play and playing is what they’re all about.

Juvenile sea lions are my favorite to dive with because they make that extra effort to engage as much as they can, throwing star fish, kelp leaves or anything they can find that is not tied down at you. An old tire on the bottom of the ocean, well, that now becomes a chew toy and I’ve actually heard them gnawing on the rubber, growling like a land puppy, all the while watching me with those big puppy dog eyes.

The best is when you get twenty of them circling and dive bombing you doing flips and posing right in front of you and you just can’t help but smile.

So now that I’ve got your interest up, your now wondering where you can you go to swim with these sea doggies?

Pups are born around June or July so October and the beginning of November is your chance to get the young’uns to come out and play.

There are several shore dives in Monterey, CA where you can hop in for a dive and have an amazing encounter but the coast guard pier is home to many sea lions and the juveniles love to come out and play so you are guaranteed to dive with them.

It’s about an 800 yard casual swim from the shore and once they see that you’ve come out to play, drop down to the sand which is about 35 feet and wait for the fun to start.

If you can’t make it to Monterey, then your best choice is to jump on a boat and that widens your area for your chances.

Santa Barbara, Santa Rosa and San Miguel Islands in the Channel Islands have big populations of sea lions as well as the Coronado Islands South of San Diego in Mexico and La Paz at Isla Los Islotes.

Getting Great Photos of Sea Lions

Photographing sea lions can be quite the challenge, with timing the shots, water quality with the sea lions kicking up particles and just getting the sea lion to come close enough to get a photograph of those amazing whiskers  and puppy dog eyes.  Wide angle is the best option for your lens and dome. I shoot a Tokina 10-17 and a Sea & Sea glass dome.

In Monterey, the sea lions like to engage divers at the sandy bottom, rolling around and kicking it up and the visibility is not always very clear so it is sometimes best to turn your strobes off and plan to convert your photos to black and white.

If you want to try your hand at using your strobes, make sure that the strobes are pointed straight forward and rule of thumb is the strobes should be the same distance from your housing that the subject is from your lens. Your strobe fires a cone of light so the best way to reduce backscatter is to make sure the inside line of the cone of light from the strobes touches and do not cross. When the lights cross, they will light up the particles between the lens and the subject.

At Santa Barbara and Coronado Islands, as well as La Paz, though, the water visibility tends to be a bit clearer and you can turn those strobes on medium high and light up those cute faces for some great portrait shots, same rules of strobe placement to reduce any chance of backscatter.

Their fur is dark so you want to make sure that you turn the strobes up enough to counteract the fur absorbing the light and your subject not getting properly lit.

Camera Settings

So what kind of camera settings should you use when trying to capture these little torpedoes?

A lot will depend, again, on the water quality but if you have clear blue water, you’ll want to have a faster shutter speed to start, 1/200th, and depending on the visibility as well as sunlight, you can start with F11 and ISO320. If your camera can handle higher ISO settings you can increase it if you want to keep a long depth of field for the whole scene or you can keep your ISO steady and open up your F-stop to F8.

If you’re lucky and they are playing in the shallows, it’s a great setup because that ambient light just helps give your subject a bit more light.

Pre-setting your focus to catch everything from a certain distance from the lens is also a good idea because these guys are fast so if I’m shooting them in the distance, I’ll focus on my fin. If I’m getting a lot of close-up fly bys, I try to use my hand or something close by to focus on because sometimes you just don’t have time to focus thru the viewfinder.

The best scenario is when you get that one little guy who just wants to prop up right in front of your camera, stops and stare at you and you finally get the chance to look thru the viewfinder and focus on that cute little, heart-shaped nose.

I don’t think I can ever get tired of diving with sea lions so next time you’re able to get in the water with these guys, take the opportunity and you won’t regret it.

I could sit and watch their antics all day!

Michelle Manson
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